Friday, 8 March 2013

Alfie Meadows & Zak King acquitted

It was announced today that student protestors Alfie Meadows and Zak King have been unanimously acquitted by a jury at their trial in London. Alfie and Zak had been charged with Violent Disorder under the Public Order Act (which carries a possible 5 year sentence on conviction) after the tuition fees protest in central London on Dec 9th 2010. To add insult to injury, Alfie had also sustained life-threatening injuries at the protest after allegedly being struck on the head with a Police baton, and required emergency surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. In a Press Release issued by campaigners, comparisons were made with policing during the 1984-5 miners' strike and the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster. I can see the parallels being drawn here as narratives can emerge after controversial crowd incidents where the victims of crowd mismanagement are portrayed as the villains. I would also argue that the deep societal distrust of crowds can encourage this process, and looked in a previous post at how viewing crowd management as a 'public order' rather than a 'public safety' issue contributed to the Hillsborough disaster. Furthermore, an aggravating factor in the sentencing guidelines for the offence of Violent Disorder is a 'large group', meaning that defendants can expect a more severe sentence on conviction if they were in a crowd when the alleged offence happened (despite there being little evidence to show that just being in a crowd encourages more anti-social behaviour).

The Press Release also highlights the police's use of indiscriminate public order tactics (such as kettling and charges) on the day, and report that they had also considered using plastic bullets. An article I recently had published (Cocking, 2013) looked at the use of such tactics (focussing on baton & mounted charges). I concluded that use of such tactics usually escalates crowd disorder, because they psychologically unite previously mixed groups in a crowd. So, if the intention behind the use of a tactic is to disperse a crowd and make people go home, then it is often counter-productive, because it usually has the opposite effect. In this paper, I included interviews with people who were at this protest, and their accounts along with my own observations on the day, support this conclusion. This protest was probably the most violent I had witnessed in Britain since the mid 1990s. However, from my observations and the accounts of the people I spoke to, the conflict increased after the police charges, escalating into a major riot in Parliament Square, with minor skirmishes and looting spilling over elsewhere in central London. Therefore, assertions that indiscriminate public order tactics are necessary to quell crowd 'disorder' are rarely supported by closer observation of the sequence of events, but this doesn't stop violence at such incidents usually being portrayed as the responsibility of crowd members and their inherent susceptibility to 'sinister forces'. 

Today's acquittal is clearly good news for Alfie, Zak, and their families and is to be welcomed. However, I think we also need to closely examine how such protests are viewed and managed so that we can question outdated and unsubstantiated views of crowds that permeate the legal system and public order policing.

For more detail see coverage in the Guardian, and the Defend the Right to Protest website web-site.

Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason? Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling. DOI: 10.1002/jip.1389


  1. Thanks for your essay in Festival Insights. I was at the Who Concert in Cincinnati OH in 1979 and I have always been distraught over the use of the word "stampede" by the media. It was a slow crush, we didnt see anyone running. Dave Cooper, Lexington KY

  2. Thanks for your comment Dave & I would also like to see the term 'stampede' no longer used descriptions of crowd disasters. Would you like me to send you a pdf of the study of the Who concert disaster referred to in my article?